Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray


Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.


Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”

 

Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.


Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

Austin alt schools are expanding and diversifying


“Spring is the time of plans and projects,” said Leo Tolstoy. Or maybe it was Martha Stewart? In any case, plans and projects are happening at many of Austin’s alternative schools right now, and we’re excited to share them with you. Here’s a roundup of major changes happening in the near future at Austin-area schools. For more information about any program, check the school’s website or give them a call.

This summer the Whole Life Learning Center is building a new math and music classroom indoors and adding new playground equipment outdoors for kids who want to climb and spin.

Are you in need of an enrichment class for a child 5 to 10 years old? Terra Luz Community School's Karen Hernandez soon will welcome Terra Luz students as well as homeschooled kids to a new class on Fridays. The school is also expecting a new teacher to join the team in the fall.

Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse is adding a class for 5th graders next year. If you’re interested, apply via their website as soon as possible. In addition to new students, RRCS will welcome a new teacher to replace 3rd–5th grade teacher Aaron Goldman, who is heading to Baltimore to study for an MFA. Everyone wishes Aaron all the best as he pursues his dreams.

New adventures are on the horizon at Progress School. Starting this fall, Progress will offer a three-day program focused on interdisciplinary, project-based learning for kids 11 to 13 years old. The program is all about collaboration and relationships and is designed around student interests. Portfolios will allow for self-assessment and sharing learning with others.

As of August 2015, Integrity Academy will expand to include 11- to 13-year-olds in Level 5.

The folks at Inside Outside School have chosen “May the Forces Be With You,” as their theme for the coming school year. During the summer kids will be helping with the school’s CSA and participating in the farmer’s market.

Is your child a maker and an artist at heart? Creative Side Jewelry Academy is now serving students aged 10 to15 years old and starting a new after-school program in the fall. The school’s curriculum is expanding to include bronze and silver casting techniques for Summer Apprenticeships and Jewelry Biz for their Kidz Homeschool program.

Clearview Sudbury School is growing—with 40 percent more space, more students, and more diverse activities. Clearview’s tech offerings are expanding, too. Through a grant from V M Ware, the school is adding a new virtual machine server, which will give school members access to powerful new computing resources on their laptops and tablets or through the school’s own clients. Students will be trained as administrators of the new system, which will include software environments for video, image, and music editing; animation; scientific computing; and even Minecraft.

Shelley Sperry

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg
 

Crazy in the name of education

We, as a modern adult society, are quite literally “driving our children crazy in the name of education,” according to author and Boston College research professor Peter Gray. Speaking yesterday at the SXSWedu conference, where I’ll be reporting for Alt Ed Austin throughout the week, Gray cited numerous studies showing a marked increase since the mid-1950s in childhood psychopathology. This change is closely correlated, he said, with the expansion of in-school and homework hours and the attendant decline in children’s free play time over the same half-century. Careful to note that he could not definitively prove a causal relationship, he said that after more than thirty years of professional research and personal observation, he considers the “continual usurpation of children’s free time” to be the most likely reason for the rise in anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide among children and teenagers.

Gray, author of a widely used introductory psychology text now in its sixth edition, explained that the higher numbers are not, as some might suggest, the results of today’s better diagnostic tools or broader recognition of these disorders; rather, they reflect data from standardized assessment tools that have not changed over the decades as they have been used to measure anxiety levels and depression in normalized samples of children and adolescents. Interestingly, the psychopathology numbers do not correspond at all with economically difficult periods or wartime, Gray said; children seem to have weathered the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War—all shown to have been seriously stressful times for adults—with no significant increase in mental or emotional distress. What is stressful for children, Gray posited, is the lack of freedom to play and a shortage of friends to play with.

Play by definition is self-directed, Gray said. “It is nature’s means of teaching children to take control of their own lives.” We are naturally selected, he explained, to practice solving problems on our own from a very young age. Independent play, especially the kind that pushes safety boundaries—like young chimpanzees swinging just a bit too high or far—is necessary for healthy development. Animal behavior researchers believe this is about learning to regulate fear and other emotions, he said. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and members of the few such societies that survive today), children in the United States and most other developed economies largely miss out on these crucial developmental experiences.

According to Gray, the closest modern students can come to the kind of freedom young humans experienced in the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies that were the norm from 1.8 million years ago until only ten thousand years ago (the latter characterized as “an evolutionarily insignificant amount of time”) is in schools that follow the Sudbury model of democratic education. As a longtime observer of and sometime systematic researcher at the original Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, Gray has concluded that it closely resembles the hunter-gatherer mode of education, although its founders did not set out with this goal in mind. These schools, Gray said, share the following conditions that make them work:

  • unlimited freedom to play and explore—“because that's how children educate themselves”
  • free age mixing
  • access to a variety of knowledgeable and caring adults
  • access to the culture’s tools and freedom to use them, especially the cutting-edge ones that help them prepare for the future
  • immersion in a stable, moral, democratic community (in contrast to what Gray characterizes as the “tyranny” of traditional schools, where kids have virtually no legal rights)

Gray’s new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, was officially released today. It documents the evidence for his theories in detail, drawing on research in anthropology, behavioral and evolutionary psychology, and historical sources. You can also find more of Gray’s writings on play and education at his Psychology Today blog, Freedom to Learn. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on his provocative work; please feel free to share them in the comments below.

Peter Gray will give a talk and Q&A tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Clearview Sudbury School. It is free and open to the public. More details about the event are on Clearview’s blog and Facebook event page.

Open houses and open doors

On the heels of last weekend’s wildly successful Education Transformation School Fair, many participating schools and other alt ed programs are following up with open houses, tours, and special events for this week. In fact, the entire month of March is positively bursting with opportunities to get to know the people and places of Austin’s alt ed community—and find the right fit for your kid. Check our calendar for all the details. Here’s a preview:

On Saturday, March 2, visit The Natural Child Learning Community, a Montessori-inspired, nature-oriented preschool in the heart of Georgetown. The program provides a part-time, holistic learning environment for children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5.

The next day, Sunday, March 3, head over to the 9th Street Schoolhouse in near East Austin to meet Caitlin and Laura, who place radical faith in children and, following the Free School model, offer guidance and experiences to develop lifelong learners. They have one immediate opening for a girl and are enrolling boys and girls age 5–12 for the fall.

Monday, March 4, is a great day to check out two South Austin alternative schools. The Whole Life Learning Center, part of the Self-Design network, is a two-acre school where kids age 5 and up work with mentors to develop holistic, individualized learning plans, honoring each learner’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. The Austin EcoSchool is offering a family tour of its "Edible Campus," where you’ll see students’ work, meet the staff, and learn about the school’s unique programs, including Game of Village. It is currently enrolling for ages 5–14.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 5, the Clearview Sudbury School will host a free talk and Q&A with scholar and author Peter Gray (who is also speaking in town this week at the SXSWedu conference). Dr. Gray, a research professor at Boston College who blogs regularly at Psychology Today, is a leading authority on the role of free play in children’s development; his new book, Free to Learn, will be officially released the same day. Clearview staff, students, and parents will be on hand to answer questions about this democratic K–12 school in Central Austin.

Friday, March 8, is your next chance to visit the Inside Outside School. Let them know to expect you, and you'll get the full tour of this community-based, intentionally small learning community situated on more than seven wooded acres in Pflugerville. “Teaching for Human Greatness” is their creed, and they’re now enrolling kindergarten through 5th grade.

And now for something completely different: On Wednesday, March 13, the Growin' Together Hands-on Afterschool Program will host a SXSW Youth Showcase, featuring some of the hottest bands in the 18-and-below universe. It’s free for all ages (donations accepted) and will rock the Austin EcoSchool campus.

After spring break, on Wednesday, March 20, join the parent tour of AHB Community School, a creative and collaborative educational alternative that seeks to cultivate authentic, balanced critical thinkers who are prepared for a life of learning and community engagement. AHB serves ages 5–12 in Central Austin. Be sure to give them a heads-up that you’re coming so they can prepare the best tour possible for you. Can’t make it that day? You’ll have another chance on March 27 and on other Wednesdays in April and May.

To stay up-to-date on alt ed events, make a habit of visiting our calendar and clicking on any listing for details. Much more is coming up this spring, with many doors opening to you and your children.

A school of one’s own

Bruce atop the swing set at Alpine Valley School in Colorado last MayBruce L. Smith has worked in education for more than twenty years and with Sudbury schools since 1997. He recently moved to Austin, where he writes about education, creativity, and mindfulness, serves on the staff of the Clearview Sudbury School, and steers a nonprofit organization that he cofounded, the Center for the Advancement of Sudbury Education (CASE). Bruce kindly adapted this guest post for Alt•Ed Austin from a recent piece on his own blog, Write Learning.


For the past fifteen years, I’ve been promoting a model of alternative education that’s about as individualized and child-centered as they come. In a nutshell, places like Austin’s Clearview Sudbury School feature self-directed learning in mixed-age, democratic communities.

Yet “child-centered” isn’t good enough for some. As long as there have been schools, people have been using them to impose various adult agendas on students—often noble or well-intentioned, but still external, still imposed. For example, educators regularly hear things like, “Yes, what you’re doing is wonderful, but how are your students making the world a better place?” The best response to this that I’ve ever seen comes from the late author, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Sometimes I describe the Sudbury model as “agenda-free learning.” This approach not only steers clear of such conventional elements as compulsory academics, rigid schedules, and adult control; we also refrain from nudging students in any particular direction, however progressive or worthy. And this leads to some very lovely results indeed. In Thurman’s words, students at schools like Clearview “come alive” in myriad ways. Empowered and trusted to decide for themselves what’s worth their time and effort, these young people shine. Their passions emerge and their talents thrive even as they tackle their weaknesses. Life for these students is a matter of authentic work and rewarding play.

In other words, Clearview Sudbury gives young people a school of their own, a place where they learn from everyday life in a community of equals. Clearview students direct the course of their days and help manage the school’s business, from drafting and enforcing rules to making budgetary and personnel decisions. Through open-ended play, exploration, conversation, and meetings, our students learn how to find their way in the world; how to obtain the help they need; how to realize their goals while respecting the rights of others; and how to coexist with people of various opinions and personalities. To the extent that Sudbury schools have an agenda, I’d say it’s one of self-actualization within community, balancing freedom and responsibility.

It could be argued that one doesn’t need a school to learn such things—or even that school interferes with this sort of learning, placing an unnecessary layer between the student and the outside world. While I respect this view, in my years with Sudbury schools I’ve found that there is one thing they offer students that they’re unlikely to find elsewhere: a place to freely practice authentic, responsible, effective living.

How common is it for children and young adults to learn in settings where they’re treated as equals—where they are, in a real sense, peers with people of all ages? How often do we allow young people to make substantive, meaningful decisions and then live with the consequences? How free are they elsewhere to experiment with different ways of being in the world, practicing the independence they’ll know as adults while growing up in a safe, respectful community?
 
After even a short time, Sudbury students begin exhibiting superlative self-awareness, integrity, and interpersonal aptitude. Given freedom—and expected to handle it responsibly—hundreds of students at dozens of schools have become more playful and mature, more articulate and thoughtful, more enthusiastic and determined. Schools like Clearview Sudbury show what we get when we set our expectations this high: strong, lively individuals and capable community members in love with life.

Once I was asked by a graduate’s parent what I thought she’d gained from going to the school where we’d known each other. After a moment I replied, “a head start on her adult life.” She knew more about herself and how to pursue her dreams at age eighteen than many do well into their twenties or thirties. She had much less to unlearn and overcome than people whose education was directed by others.

In the end, agenda-free learning is far more empowering than any external curriculum. All the qualities that foster success in the twenty-first century—things like initiative, persistence, adaptability, resourcefulness, and responsibility—are nurtured to an amazing degree at Clearview Sudbury School, where students have a place of their own to come into their own. And as Thurman says, this is what the world needs.

Bruce L. Smith